A word about interpretation – Elizabeth Keto

Hello there. I’m glad you’re here. My name is Elizabeth, and I’m one of the curators of Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday. In this space, we’ll have a series of blog posts exploring aspects of our exhibition-making process from ‘behind the scenes’.

My two primary roles on the exhibition were coordinating our text interpretation – basically, serving as a general editor for the project – and licensing the images of the artworks, so that we could legally display them on our website. Although copyright is a crucially important protection for artists and other creators, I’m afraid that a blog post focused on the ins and outs of image licensing would be about as thrilling as reading an air-conditioner repair manual backwards. So I will focus instead on interpretation.

Although writing captions might seem to be one of the aspects of an exhibition least affected by a transition to an online platform – text is text, whether online or on a gallery wall – the pandemic did create an unexpected dilemma for us. How do you write about something you’ve never seen?

As any art history professor will tell you, writing about a work of art without seeing it in person is a thoroughly suspect practice. One of my professors was famous for requiring students to spend no less than three hours before a work of art before even beginning to compose their essays. Since we were still finalising our list of works when COVID-19 precipitated the closure of the collection stores and the relocation of many of the students away from London, only one of us was ever able to see any of the works in person. And like us, all of the visitors to our exhibition will view the works of art only through the pixelated veil of a computer or smartphone screen.

Interpretation – the written words that help explain, contextualise, or translate the work of art – seems to hold the danger of increasing that sense of separation. The root of ‘interpreter’ is a Latin word meaning a go-between, an agent, a negotiator. ‘Interpretation’ in the museum carries that same sense of bridging a distance: a text that mediates a conversation between artwork and viewer.

Yet what we were most concerned to preserve for our viewers was that very sense of closeness and contact that was most threatened by the online space. We were determined that the works of art still be able to touch viewers, to hold their attention – a task made more difficult given the siting of the exhibition within the internet’s empire of distraction. How then to interpret in a way that lessens the distance, rather than increasing it?

My hope is that our interpretation functions less as a thing (or as a description of a thing, so two things, really) than as an event, as a certain type of mental action. I’d like to foreground the idea of ‘reading’ as an open-ended, ongoing practice, rather than as a finished, self-contained text – ‘a reading of the work’. I’m eager that you should come with me on this voyage, this act of crossing between shores. Our interpretations, if they work as they should, are simply invitations to you, dear reader.

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